Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 29 - The Nervous System of the Metropolis

[back to menu for this book ...]



    A GREAT gap has just been filled up in our system of telegraphic communication. Cities can converse with cities, countries with countries, and even continents with continents; but house cannot communicate with house. We have the district telegraph, it is true, and by walking half a mile in town you may find a station which will send a message to within half a mile of its destination: but what is wanted is a system of telegraphy which shall dip its wires down into the library or warehouse — an elongation, if we may so term it, of our own nervous system, so simple in its construction that anyone can work it, so speedy that we may telegraph as quickly as we could write. We want, in short, in all large towns to abolish the messenger and district post, and Professor Wheatstone has provided us with the means of doing so.
    All existing telegraphs require a staff of trained clerks to work them. The language of the common needle instrument employed throughout the country is as difficult of acquirement as short-hand; consequently, it presents an insuperable bar to its private use by untrained persons. The invention by Professor Wheatstone of what he terms the Universal Private Telegraph has obviated this difficulty, and the Company formed to work his patents are now prepared to lay on telegraphic communication between [-285-] factory and warehouse, public office and public office, police station and police station or between private dwellings, with as much ease and more speed than we now lay on the gas.
    The method of working the new telegraph can be understood by the child that knows his letters. If we enter Messrs. Spottiswoode's establishment for the sale of state papers at the House of Commons, we may see two elegant-looking instruments. The communicator or machine which sends the message is very similar in size to a ship's chronometer. Round the outer edge of its face, running .from right to left, are printed the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, three stops and a cross. Inside the letters are numerals, from one to ten. Outside the edge of the disc are ranged a series of keys, similar to those of an accordion, opposite to the different letters. By touching a key a pulse of electricity is passed through the Indicator, and as the operator spells the word upon its face, he knows that his correspondent at the end of his wire is reading off his message on an exactly similar watch face, it may be twenty miles away. At each terminus of the wire of course there is both a Communicator and an Indicator. But, asks the reader, how are the wires conveyed which complete the electric circuit? The earth circuit-line is simply attached to any water-pipe which may be under the house, whilst the other is carried high over head, out of the way of the busy hive of men whose slave it is. In all probability, the aerial traveller of ten years hence passing over Londonor any other large town, in a· balloon, will view all the treasures of the earth guarded, like a jeweller's window, with a wire-guard.
    [-286-]  The telegraphic cables will be carried over the tops of the houses in nearly equilateral triangles, each angle having a base of a mile in length. The term telegraphic cable, however, may possibly puzzle the reader without some further explanation. The electric wires will not run as those we see beside the railways, stretched for the sake of isolation like bars of music, but will be contained in numbers from thirty to a hundred in a single cable (or more, if necessary), thoroughly isolated from one another by an Indian-rubber process patented by the Messrs. Silver, of Silvertown. Gutta-percha, the ordinary isolator. would not be able to bear the exposure to the heat of a summer sun, but Indian-rubber will not melt at any heat under the boiling point. The bundle of copper wires thus isolated in the Indian-rubber cable are No. 22 gauge, or not thicker than ordinary pack-thread; Professor Wheatstone has discovered that he is enabled, with conductors of this thickness, to convey a message twenty miles with perfect ease. This is a great discovery, inasmuch as it greatly reduces the expense, and allows of the combination of a large number of wires in a cable not thicker than the little finger. As it is desirable that no strain should be put upon the cable, it is not allowed to bear its own weight for any distance. Thus suspending posts will be erected on the tops of the houses at every two hundred yards ; from them stout iron wires will stretch, from which the cable will be at moderate intervals lightly slung. At the intersection of every angle a mile apart, stout straining posts will be erected in order to taughten the wires when required. At these posts, what is [-287-] termed a connecting-box will be placed for the purpose of combining the various lines and wires together in any required order, and also for bringing off the return wires to such renters as may reside in the vicinity.
    The wires all being bound together in one rope, it will naturally be asked, What provision is there for discovering a fault in any particular wire, at any particular point? So necessary a provision as this has not been overlooked. At every suspending post, two hundred yards apart, the wires of the cables are separated, and are passed through what is termed a connecting disc. This disc is fitted with a series of small tubes, those which contain wires running in one direction, being coloured red, and those which proceed in an opposite direction being coloured black. Each of these pipes, as well as each wire, is numbered. It will only be necessary, therefore, to test from post to post, in order to find where the interruption to the passage of the electric current has taken place. The fault thus narrowed to a distance of two hundred yards, can instantly be rectified. If our nerves could only be numbered, and isolated, and repaired in this manner, what a blessing it would be! I t is anticipated that for a considerable time the new telegraph will be principally confined to the use of public offices and places of business. Thus the principal public offices are already connected by its wires, and, if we might be permitted the ugly comparison, the Chief Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, spider-like, sits in the centre of a web co-extensive with the metropolis, and is made instantly sensible of any disturbance that may take place at any point.
    The Queen's Printer, again, has for years sent his mes-[-288-]sages by one of these telegraphs between the House of Commons and his printing-office near Fleet Street. The different docks are put en rapport with each other, and it will be especially applicable to all large manufacturing establishments requiring central offices in the City. Thus, the Isle of Dogs and Bow Common, the grand centres of manufacturing energy, are practically brought next door to offices in the centre of the City. The merchant residing at his country residence, through his private wire may know all that is going on at the docks without leaving his library when his ships have arrived, when they have sailed, and, possibly, when they have been wrecked. It must not be supposed that any of these wires are used in common by several persons. Each person will possess his own particular wire, as he possesses his gas or water-pipes, for the use and maintenance of which he will pay an annual rent. Thus the wire will be let to him at the rate of 4l. per mile, and he may either purchase the communicator and indicator, the working instruments of the telegraph, or he may hire them at the rate of 12l. per annum. Thus a man may talk over the distance of a mile for the sum of 16l. annually, and for any distance farther for an additional 4l. per mile. The use of this singular instrument has even penetrated into the country, and Lord Kinnaird has already laid it down between his mansion of Rossie Castle and the neighbouring county town, eight miles distant, and if anything is wanted from his tradesmen there, the order is given in his own library.
    The great peculiarity of the Universal Telegraph Company is that it puts the means of communication in the hands of the public without making any public appearance [-289-]  itself It has no clerks, no offices, no stations;· it -simply provides the machinery, and puts the clue into the hands of its customers, and leaves them to do their own work.
    As long as these renters employ the wires simply for commercial purposes, and confine themselves to using a given portion of the public electric way, the business of the company can be carried on in this inexpensive manner; but it cannot, we think, be doubted that, in time to come, the telegraph will become a necessary of domestic life, and that it will, year by year, encroach upon the province of the Post-Office. When this day arrives, which it has already done in America, a necessity will immediately arise for district stations, in which the wire of one friend may be placed in communication with that of another, or in fact with any person who rents a wire. It may be that the friend may dwell in another part of the kingdom, in which case, before sending a message, it would be necessary to have his wire placed in connection with a public railway telegraph, and this again at its terminus with the friend's wire.
    By combining beforehand different lines in this manner, two different persons may converse together across the island, sitting in their own drawing-rooms; nay, by only extending the connection of these lines with the submarine cables across the sea, a person may converse with his friend travelling day by day at the other end of the globe, provided only that he keeps on some telegraphic line that is continuous with the main electric trunk-lines of the world. This may appear to be an idle dream, but that it will certainly come to pass we have no manner of doubt whatever.
    [-290-] Mr. Holmes, the able engineer to the company, has already planned a telegraphic system of communication for the city of Manchester, by which all the principal warehouses and factories will be placed in communication with each other. All the great cities of the empire are awaiting the construction of the new system, and, ere long, the mechanical commissionnaire will be doing the errand work of all the great centres of industry in the community.
    We may view the vast net-work of wire about to be erected over our heads as a plexus of nerves answering to the ramification of nerves which makes the skin so sensitive. The air will hold in suspension, as it were, the intricate highways of thought. Between us and the bright blue sky, unseen messengers of good and evil will be perpetually flowing to and fro.
    Who shall say that this old earth is near its decadence? Why, it has only just been endowed with its nervous system; its muscles, if we may so term the steam-engine, have only been just set in motion; and its locomotive powers, the railway and steam-ship, have only just  found out the full use of their legs. In brain, nerve, and limb, it is but just emerging from its helpless infancy. At what pace we shall go in the next generation  we scarcely dare to anticipate.
    The Universal Private Electric Telegraph Company is limited to providing private electric ways to customers, who wish to possess an instantaneous communication between given points. For this purpose no public offices are necessary, as the individuals send and receive their own messages. This company therefore can be of no use to the community at large. In a metropolis like London — which is in itself [-291-] a province, extending in some directions for ten miles — it must be clear that a speedy method of communication is of the last importance. This want is in course o.f being provided for by the London District Telegraph Company, whose chief office is in Cannon Street, with a central West End office at Charing Cross. This Company is steadily and silently extending its operation so as to cover the whole area. o.f London with its wires. Whilst the Universal Private Telegraph Company have chosen the air as the pathway for their lines, the District Company, as far as the West End traffic is concerned, have chosen the ground. Their wires, all separate, and coated with gutta-percha, are enclosed in iron pipes and buried beneath the curb stone of the pavement. Many of our readers must have witnessed the laying of these bundles of chocolate-coloured pipes, and wondered what could have been their purpose. They are the main collection of nerves, the spinal chord, in fact, between commercial London, and its sister city of Westminster. At stated distances iron posts are erected for the purposes of affording testing points for the wires. If any of these cease to work, the workmen have only to test from post to. post, to find out where the break in the current has taken place. The value of this Company to the public must evidently be in proportion to. the number of offices they can manage to dot over the face of the metropolis. As long as the stations for receiving messages were a mile apart, their operations were necessariIy confined, as the time taken up by messengers in forwarding messages, and also the expense, greatly detracted from the practical application of electricity, as a means of superseding the old methods of communication; but [-292-] the multiplication of electric stations has lately brought the metropolitan electric way-wire prominently before the public. Within a radius of two miles of Charing Cross, which covers all the chief resorts of business in London, there are now offices for the reception and transmission of messages at every quarter of a mile: thus anyone terminus within this radius is practically within five minutes of another, and of any part of its neighbourhood. The central business office of the Company is at Cannon Street: there also is the centre of the telegraphic system of the Company. From this point the different lines of wire radiate to every part of London. Upwards of eighty wires are here gathered up, and ascending a long shoot in the interior of the building, are then spread out and distributed to the different telegraphic machines in the telegraph room. This is the sensorium of the nervous system. Three large counters stretch along the whole length of the room, and rows of young ladies sit before their instruments, either watching or working them. The principal work of these machines is to transmit the messages sent to them from out stations. Thus, supposing a message has to be transmitted from Kensington to Camberwell, the electric current is not switched right through the central office, but is received and transcribed there, and re·transmitted through the Camberwell line.
    Of course, from the central position of this office, it has also a considerable amount of messages to send to the   outskirts and suburbs; but this part of its business is secondary to the other. The telegraph-room is nothing more than a workshop, but the workmanship performed requires delicacy and intelligence, —  it is brain-work rather [-293-] than muscle-work, and the experiment has been successfully tried of employing upon it female labour. It is extraordinary the number of occupations that are gradually opening to respectable· young females, now that attention has been publicly drawn to the vast supply of this power there is at present in this country unoccupied. Almost all the manipulators at the different telegraph companies are young ladies. There are upwards of two hundred at the old Electric Telegraph Company at Lothbury, and they are found to do their work excellently well. At the telegraphic room of this Company, the number of manipulators is comparatively small; but we could not help being struck with the intelligence of their appearance. They evidently belonged to the class whose only resource, a few years ago, was to supply the more affluent with nursery-governesses. The labour is light, and gives them the interesting privilege, to ladies, of being the repositories of other people's secrets. The instruments are not at at times at work, but their attendants must be always near them, in order that they may hear the click of the needle calling their attention to the coming of a message. Whilst waiting for the summons they are allowed to read or sew, and this mixture of work and amusement looks singular enough. The young ladies have to go through an examination before they are received into the service of the Company. They matriculate with writing and spelling; they are then taught the use of the needle instrument, a matter of some little trouble, as it necessitates a familiarity with certain signs, representing letters; and when they are sufficiently expert to be able to telegraph eight words per minute, they are placed upon the staff and paid 8s. per [-294-] week. a sum which is augmented to 15s, as they grow more expert, and are able to telegraph with greater speed.
     It is worthy of notice that a certain amount of refinement and consideration is shown to these young ladies by their employers. As their hours are between nine in the morning and seven in the afternoon, between which periods they are not allowed to leave the establishment, some arrangement is necessitated for the supply of their meals. The Company provides an excellent cook, who prepares the food they bring for dinner and tea, which is partaken of in a very comfortable dining-room. There is also a lavatory, embellished by a fountain. and all the arrangements indicate a very gallant appreciation, on the part of the Company, of the class of people it employs. We cannot help thinking that other employers of female labour of the better class might follow the example of the telegraphic companies, in this particular, with advantage. The young ladies are found to be admirable manipulators of the instruments, and they are said to possess this advantage over the other sex, that they are more manageable, and have less inducements to change their employment. But it is not only in the telegraphic department that female labour is employed: the clerks rustle about in silks, and manage to place a pen behind their ears with the best commercial air. The clearing-room is wholly worked by young ladies. In this part of the establishment all papers belonging to each message are docketted together, and placed in pigeon-holes, numbered with the sign of the office from which the message has been received. These papers contain the whole history of the message, through its entire process.
    [-295-]  The porterage of the establishment is carried on by a staff of boys. Formerly they were paid weekly wages, but latterly the system has been changed to piece-work. The boys are given one penny per message — it is astonishing to see how admirably the plan of giving the boy an interest in his own exertions answers for both employer and employed. Formerly the boys endeavoured to obtain a minimum of work with a maximum of play: now, the rush is for work. Boys that were before only earning 4s. per week, now very often get between two and three shillings a-day.
    At the out-stations, the distances to be gone over are greater, consequently the porterage is more expensive; but the Company are quite alive to the importance of reducing the cost of transmitting messages to the lowest possible point. In the suburban districts, the office of the Company is generally located in some shop, and in many cases the proprietor himself performs the work of telegraphic clerk. Generally the post-office is selected. An analysis of the messages sent prove that communications of a domestic character are steadily on the increase. When we remember that commercial London lives out of town, we can understand that the heads of households would have many occasions to communicate with their homes. Thus, a very common message is for forgotten keys, or some "worse half," mindful of the black looks that await a husband who brings home a friend to "pot luck," sends word of the coming of company. It is very common to order places at the opera, or at theatres, by telegraph; and doctors, now and then, when taken suddenly ill, send round to their patients to know if they will be wanted, franking the return message.
    [-296-]  It is now becoming very common for tradesmen in the suburbs dealing in perishable articles of food to telegraph to Leadenhall, or Billingsgate, for poultry or fish, and town travellers, also, forward their orders by the same agency. Sometimes notice of a cheque being dishonoured is thus sent, and it is common now to order coals by telegraph, the tradesman advertising to pay the cost. Into public life the District Telegraph also enters. Thus it connects the different courts of law, and Sergeant Hardup, engaged at the Old Bailey and at the Westminster Sessions at the same time, is enabled to learn the minute that his services will be required at either place. The saving of time and of labour which the District Telegraph will bring about when it is fully developed will be incalculable. The cost of transmitting a message, porterage included, within the two miles' radius of Charing Cross, is only sixpence, a sum that brings the new messenger within the means of most people; and we may now consider that we no longer labour under the reproach of putting the most distant parts of the country in connection with each other, whilst we leave the capital without any of the facilities which modern science has given to us.